I thought I knew how stressful breastfeeding could be. When I worked as a Research Genetic Counsellor on a study of postpartum mental health I did home visits with new mums and heard time and again about the stresses of breastfeeding. I heard from mum after mum that breastfeeding was the number one source of stress in their transition to parenthood. And yet… During my pregnancy, I attended prenatal classes. Overall, I found them tremendously valuable – especially for preparing for labour and delivery. However, the way the educator handled the class on breastfeeding made me both extremely anxious and also angry. She essentially said that if you f%@ed up the first 24 hours after delivery, then you would spend months trying to get breastfeeding back on track. I was hoping to breastfeed, but feeling worried about it, and this message did nothing to calm my fears. I was enraged at the pressure and expectations this was putting on women when they are at their most vulnerable. Rationally, I knew this was unreasonable. And yet….
I was reassured when I noticed colostrum in my nipples about 5 or 6 weeks before my due date, and my breasts had definitely grown during the pregnancy, so I was feeling optimistic about breastfeeding. My husband and I had initially discussed sharing feeding our baby – our relationship has a foundation of sharing responsibilities. In talking with feminist friends, however, we heard stories of their experience of trying the shared approach and ultimately finding greater equity in a model of caring for the caregiver – the mum cares for the baby and the partner cares for the mum. This was because we heard from mums that – even if the co-parent gets up sometimes to feed the baby – the lactating mum would need to get up anyway to pump due to breast discomfort. Our plan was to try the care for the caregiver model. It did not work out. Our son was impatient to come into the world, and I went into labour 3.5 weeks early. Labour and delivery went 100% according to plan – since we were ‘late preterm’, we got access to one of the ‘high risk’ rooms at BC Women’s, which was big and had a bathtub, so I was able to labour in the water for some of the time. After agonizing during pregnancy about whether I could have an epidural and whether it would work because I have a fused spine following scoliosis surgery, I didn’t feel the need for one, and felt comfortable with managing the pain using gas and air. Our son was born 8.5 hours after labour started, got full marks on his APGAR scores, and weighed 6 lbs 12 oz – initial concerns about being ‘late preterm’ subsided. We were told that our chances for breastfeeding success were good because I hadn’t had any interventions in the delivery, but I did have postpartum hemorrhage, and so I needed to be sure to eat well to build back up my iron stores.
My son did not find my breasts or initiate breastfeeding on his own when he was placed on my chest following delivery, but I was so ecstatic holding him that I didn’t even notice. When we tried breastfeeding later, I tried to remember and follow the instructions we had been given in the prenatal classes, holding my breast with my hand in a ‘C’ shape and touching my nipple to my son’s nose. My son could not have been less interested. He screamed and cried and thrashed. We squeezed out drops of colostrum and finger fed them to him. His blood sugars and weight dropped precipitously, and our nurse informed us that we needed to bottle feed him. We could keep trying to breastfeed at the same time, but the priority was to get him fed. So that my breastmilk would come in, I would need to pump. Thus started the triple feeding circus and three months of breastfeeding obsession (Triple feeding circus: 1) try breastfeeding, 2) give baby pumped breastmilk and/or donor breastmilk and/or formula via syringe/tube/bottle, 3) pump for at least 15 mins for each breast). I read whole books about breastfeeding as I sat at the hospital-grade breastpump we had rented. I experienced deep frustration as I read about how a feeding cycle should be completed in 1 hour maximum. I felt intense gratitude towards my husband and our privilege, as we threw money at this problem – hiring a lactation consultant, buying all kinds of supplemental nursing systems and bottles. Most of all, though, I felt excruciating inadequacy and shame.
The first task of motherhood is to feed your baby, and I was a failure. My body had failed me. I was unworthy of my son. My darkest night was on the fourth day postpartum, the day we came home from the hospital. I sat in the hallway outside our bedroom with my son and as I offered him my breasts and he cried, I felt rejected and devastated. As my fingers and wrists felt shooting pains and numbness from finger-feeding using the SNS tube, and my breasts felt hard and painful, and my feet felt swollen, and I was sweating up a storm, I felt deep despair. I wasn’t needed here. My son and husband would be better off without me. The next day, after spending most of the day in tears, I had a heart-to-heart with my husband who said to me “we’re in this together”. Those were powerful words that I really needed to hear, and I clung to over the next month. I also heard breastfeeding stories from many friends and strangers, and I thank all the mothers who took the time to share their experiences of pain, which were so validating and normalizing for me. My husband and I ended up sharing the responsibility of feeding our son, with some breastfeeding and some formula bottle feeding, which was a wonderful thing – while I got much needed sleep, my husband got to bond with our son. While I grieved not having the postpartum experience I wanted, I now firmly believe there isn’t one right way to feed your child; you need to do what’s right for you and breast is not always best. My advice to anyone who is supporting a new mum is to say the words that may seem obvious to you. I needed to hear that I was loved. I needed to hear that I was worthy of sleep and food. I needed to hear that I wasn’t alone. Because when you are in the depths of despair, especially when sleep deprived and a hormonal wreck, none of this is obvious.
We’re In This Together is a photography series, coordinated in partnership with the Pacific Post Partum Support Society and the Good Mother Project, that offers messages of encouragement, hope, support and love to new parents.
For more information on how you can share your message, please visit: http://goodmotherproject.com/were-in-this-together”
#youareenough #ppd #anxiety #maternalmentalhealth #postpartum #motherhood #momlife